Monday, March 18, 2013

Jorge, Patrick, Justin

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth…”

Hasn’t it been exciting, watching possible fulfillment of that promise emerging in the Roman Catholic Church? Theirs is a system that affirms tradition far more wholeheartedly than change, and yet there’s no doubt the cardinals have chosen a promising pope, a man known less for his sharp opinions than for his countercultural simplicity and humility. His choice to be known as Francis appears to convey the agenda and attitude he brings to the office.

Padre Jorge has been his preferred name for decades, even as archbishop and cardinal. Fr. Thomas Mansella, a native Argentinian and interim Rector of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Buenos Aires, offers his appreciation of this new pope:

“The Roman Catholic cathedral in Buenos Aires is just a few blocks from the Anglican cathedral and ‘Padre Jorge’…used to walk the few blocks from his residence to attend ecumenical events at St. John’s… On many occasions he just rode the subway to wherever he had to go. He is very low key. He says what he has to say, and then sits down.”

Mansella said Bergoglio is well respected in Argentina. “He is very ecumenical—especially with us Anglicans—and a man of prayer and great spirituality… He has spoken frequently for social justice. But because he has condemned the current Argentinian official corruption, he is not liked by the powers that be. So, perhaps by strong influence he will be a force to clean up the Roman Curia. But do not expect big proclamations.”

I believe it is Padre Jorge’s commitment to simplicity that attracts our attention. As one of our oldest and wisest parishioners said to me prior to all that white smoke, “Isn’t it the glam and glitter of that bejeweled miter that gets to you, taking us far from where we expect to see Jesus?” (And yes, Anglican archbishops go in for a certain degree of bling, too…)

Pope Francis may keep the papal tailors at Gammarelli’s somewhat less busy than his predecessors… but he will find his own way to look the part. I’ll be keeping my eye on his feet, to see if those red pumps reappear (though I doubt any Jesuit would be caught dead in them).

But for sure, we won’t forget that this is a man known for taking the bus to work, rubbing shoulders with working people, chatting about what he’d be cooking for his supper that night. We’ll likely not forget that his parting words from that balcony, after asking that we pray for him, were “Good night. Get some rest.”

What rescues any Christian leader from being co-opted by institutional distraction and distorted values is expressed by the apostle Paul today. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ… because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

That apostolic spirit, which we rejoice to catch like a fresh breeze from Rome, comes to us down the ages also through a fellow named Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Would that all the Irish remember that he was English, from the region at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. His family owned a landed estate, his father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest. He wasn’t yet sixteen when Irish raiders kidnapped him to Armagh. As a slave, for six years he tended animals on a Northern Irish hillside, praying night and day for escape.

Those prayers answered, he found his way back to England, where his family implored him to settle; but he could not forget his years in Ireland, and in his “Confession” writes that in a vision God called him to return as a missionary priest.

In her book, “The Saints of the Anglican Calendar”, Kathleen Jones says that “Many legends are told about Patrick. Some of these, like the legend that he banished the snakes from Ireland, suggest the kind of magical pretensions which he condemned in the pagan priests of Armagh… but when all the accretions are stripped away, there remains the figure of this man of blazing faith, with the Spirit seething within him, resolutely facing spiritual and physical dangers to bring Christianity to the people who once enslaved him.”

That spirit is felt in the hymn text he’s credited with, St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Hear three of its seven verses:

“I bind unto myself today the virtues of the star-lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old familiar rocks.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to hearken to my need;
The wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech, his heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

No stranger to the challenges of life as a Christian is Justin Welby, a third apostle to have in mind today, since on Thursday he will be enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. Security is expected to be tight at Canterbury Cathedral as two thousand invitees, including Prince Charles and Prime Minister Cameron, gather to hear the thumping sound of the new Archbishop striking the cathedral doors with his crook to be allowed to enter, and later to hear him swear an oath on the Canterbury Gospels, brought to Kent by St. Augustine in the 6th century.

BBC correspondent Robert Pigott comments that the new Archbishop will be garlanded with new titles—“Most Reverend”, “Metropolitan”, “Primate”, even “By Divine Providence”—but he will be no pope, with autocratic power to command obedience. Instead, his will be a post where responsibility far exceeds the power to fulfill it.

Well, that’s according to the BBC. Believers expect that Archbishop Welby will be tapping into deep wells of spiritual power not his own.

Who is this man? A relatively inexperienced prelate, ordained a priest twenty years and a bishop just 18 months, a truly short stay as Bishop of Durham. He reports that when a Downing Street official told him he was about to be appointed, Bishop Welby replied, “Oh, no!”

He is married to Caroline, and they have five children between the ages of 16 and 27. A sixth, a daughter, died in childhood. It wasn’t too long after this that Welby left his post as Treasurer of Enterprise Oil, a high post to have reached by his mid-thirties, and became a priest.

He very much supports women’s ordination to the episcopate. His opposition to gay marriage is clearly stated, but some say he has opened the door for future talks with gay marriage advocates, has called for the creation of safe spaces where issues of sexuality can be discussed honestly, and has insisted that homophobia in the pews of the UK can have deadly impact on gay people in Africa, whose clerics are sometimes at fault for using rhetoric that endangers gay people.

Some say that the Archbishop’s short tenure as a bishop could help him stay free from slavery to outmoded systems needing change within the Church of England . He comes with extensive experience in conflict resolution, and believes in “diversity without enmity” as a model for Anglicans. He sits on the UK’s Commission on Banking Standards currently investigating deal-rigging. He says about money that it is “theology in numbers”, adding that “our sense of who God is… our concern and love for one another are demonstrated in part by our use of money.”

When the day came that he could no longer resist the call to leave the oil industry and become a priest, he approached the CEO’s office with what his boss called “a resignation face.” “I was thinking,” said his old boss, “What can we do to keep him?” Which top company had made him such a good offer that he couldn’t refuse?

“But as soon as I heard what he was going to do, and the way he was talking about it, I knew we didn’t have a chance.”

In such ways as this, apostolic succession goes on. Patrick, Francis, Justin all come to mind today. To adequately tell the story of apostolic succession, we Episcopalians are certain that women’s stories must also be heard. But today, by the luck of the draw (and of the Irish, the Argentinians, and the Brits), we have the stories of three men.

Two women in our Gospel—and their brother, freshly rescued from his grave—open their house to welcome Jesus. Doesn’t that house make you think of the Church? Martha is the activist. Mary the contemplative. Judas is corrupt. Lazarus has been through the rigors of hell and lives to bear witness to grace. Jesus is at table, he is the source of the grace that holds us together, holds us in life, holds us eternally. At his table, all are fed, divisions are overcome, tradition is handed on, new things spring forth, saints are made, apostles called and sent.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lent Is for Renewal!

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Lent includes Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Happy Refreshment Sunday. That’s what today, the 4th Sunday in Lent, has been called since the middle ages. Roughly halfway through the penitential season of Lent, this has long been kept as a feast day for lightening up on Lenten discipline.

Happy Mothering Sunday. That’s another long-standing name for today, so called in the U.K. since the 16th century. In those days, to “go a-mothering” was to attend worship today in the mother church of your region, perhaps the diocesan cathedral or another large parish. This wasn’t so much about celebrating motherhood as it was about sensing spring in the air. Children would pick whatever flowers were in bloom to decorate the altars, and whatever the equivalent of coffee hour was in those days was likely beefed up for the occasion.

Mothering Sunday became a day off for the growing number of men and women in domestic service in the great houses of the British Isles. Each would be sent home with a simnel cake, a gift for mother. All this became a secular holiday, and the day has become much like our Mothers’ Day, but earlier.

One day last week, I was having a conversation with Joyce Lincourt, our youth minister, when I heard myself say, “After all, Lent is meant to renew us, not exhaust us.”

“Is that so?” came her reply. I had to agree: my claim is hardly self-evident, especially to Joyce this year, when she’s in charge of our Friday-night Lenten Series delving into “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” In fact, ask any church staff member what Lent is for, and the answers will sound more like a season in training for a marathon than a season for refreshment;
More a season when more is expected, rather than a time for lessening burdens.

But this purpose of renewal is the Church’s claim for Lent, not just mine. And we hear it today through scripture. At the midpoint of this penitential season, we hear Psalm 32 announce, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” Hear the exclamation marks! Rejoicing is in the air. A yet older name for this day is Laetare Sunday, from the Latin “rejoice!”

Manna is served up in the wilderness wanderings of our Hebrew ancestors. Manna was some kind of a natural nutritional substance that these migrating people discovered in supernatural abundance, renewed nightly. It saved their lives, though they had for it the kind of love-hate feelings that soldiers have for MREs—meals ready to eat, for survival but little more. Our reading from the Book of Joshua today highlights the last day those immigrants faced distasteful instant food, the first day they ate the produce of the land they were to claim as their own. The manna had been sheer gift from God; the crops of the land where they would settle would, from Israel’s viewpoint, be sheer gift as well.

Renewal, refreshment, sheer grace.

Reconciliation is served up in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians. Five times the word appears, in the course of five sentences. Do you think he’s making a point? “In Christ God is reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Restoration, renewal, sheer grace.

Those themes prepare us to hear Luke’s story of the prodigal son. Drawn to Jesus like moths to a campfire are tax collectors and sinners catching in the air the rumor, the aroma of reconciling love—the very thing that causes self-righteous scribes and Pharisees to grumble in harsh judgment of tax collectors, sinners… and Jesus.

“There was a man who had two sons…” starts Jesus, addressing both halves of his audience, embracing them both.

The younger son is restless, unhappy, unfulfilled, bored. How he scorns the life he has, loathes his limitations, punishes the people around him for trapping him in this pointless life.

“I’m out of here… leaving this Podunk village, this annoying farm, this zero night life… I’m leaving, and you’re paying, Dad…

You know the rest. What looks like a lot of money quickly isn’t. A glamorous life can become a squalid life. The famine accelerates it all. “And he began to be in need.”

There’s a new sensation. He has long needed… but had all along been insulated from needing, until now. To his credit, he finds a job. An entry-level job. A dead-end job. A despised job, if you factor in a certain cultural bias against pork. And he had to deal not just with what went into the front end of the pig, but also with what came out of the other—which perfectly describes what kind of job this was.

“And no one gave him anything.”

Such was his life, as an alienated man. Until he came to himself and recognized the far distance he had come, headed (he now believed) in the wrong direction. Could he change course? Return? What would it take? What would be required of him? New attitudes were already forming in him: the lowest of the low on his father’s farm, hired hands he had ridiculed (or been horrified by) now seemed to him in a better place than he was.

“He who sees himself as he is, and has seen his sin, is greater than the one who raises the dead,” St. Isaac the Syrian taught. Martin Smith adds, “When we are prepared to face our besetting faults, then the opportunity comes for the Spirit (of God) to change our practice of scorning, punishing, and loathing weakness.”

“Purity of heart,” St. Isaac goes on, “is love for those who fall. If you see your brother in the act of sinning throw about his shoulders the mantle of your love.”

“The best robe!” cries the father to his servants, while he warms this boy back to life by his embrace, his compassion thawing whatever remains frozen within him. “Let us eat and celebrate! Rejoice with me! This my son was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!”

“Oh, yes!” agree the tax collectors and sinners. “Just the right thing to do!”

But the other half of Jesus’s audience is about to speak. “What is going on here?” asks the father’s elder son. And when he learns what, he scorns his father’s generosity, verbally punishes the old man’s love, loathes his weakness. “All these years, I have worked like a slave for you. Never have I disobeyed you. Did you once give a party for me and my friends? My good behavior you have never acknowledged. You ignore the bad behavior of this son of yours…”

“This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found,” insists the father. Insists Jesus, hoping these scribes and Pharisees will recognize this elder brother in themselves, and come to themselves, and choose to see themselves as they are, and see their sin, and allow the Spirit of God to change their practice of scorning, punishing, and loathing weakness.

Jesus throws about our shoulders the mantle of this short timeless story, this tapestry that depicts restoration, renewal, reconciliation, sheer grace. What will we make of it?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Burning Bush, Dormant Tree

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 3:1-15; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

This is one of those Sundays when I’m not feeling so grateful that we’re assigned our readings from the Bible. Some of the bits and bobs of today’s readings send me running for the nearest exit.

But we’ve got a burning bush, and a dormant tree. These are images a preacher can work with. By coincidence, Martin Smith in his Lenten book “A Season for the Spirit” offers a related comment in his entry for this past Thursday: “Jesus tried to get people to find within themselves that patch of good soil in which he could plant the little seed of Yes to God that could grow into a great tree.”

You could say that is what God was up to with Moses and the burning bush. Once he had attracted Moses’ attention by this intriguing sight of fire in a bush that the fire does not consume—completely contrary to expectation—God uses the encounter to commission Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of their bondage in Egypt. That God should need audio-visual aids to capture Moses’ undivided attention suggests that Moses was a hard customer to persuade, even for God, and the rest of their exchange demonstrates how guarded Moses was in protecting that patch of good soil in which might be planted the little seed of Yes.

“The bush is Israel,” say the rabbis about this story. With that in mind, we might say that God is planting in Moses the promise that whatever fiery trials lie ahead, if Moses accepts God’s call to serve his people, God will crown his efforts with success. By this startling vision of the bush burning but not consumed, God plants a promise in Moses, one that will sustain Moses as he gets his people, who were accustomed to slavery, to find within themselves that patch of good soil in which he could plant the little seed of Yes to God. Yes, we will dare imagine ourselves as free men and women. Yes, we will dare commit ourselves to becoming a nation that will bless all nations.

The burning, the light, the warmth, the color serve in this story as signs of God.

I’ve been drawn to notice some burning moments in my experience of this parish, in recent days, moments when I recognized the promise in what I was seeing, occasions when it felt as if we as a community were finding patches of good soil for planting little seeds of Yes to God.

One of these is our Friday evening journeys into Narnia, a fantasy world created by the imagination of C. S. Lewis, yet a world so real in its battle between slavery and freedom, a world in the grip of a dark magic even while timeless values such as loyalty, courage, and sacrificial love break in upon that dark cold world.

While the film is a masterpiece, the burning moments for me have come as I realized what fun we’re having, across the generations, as we go deeper into the story of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Joyce Lincourt has poured her heart and soul into this adventure, commissioning people to enjoy their freedom—like James and John and Judy, turning that room into Narnia; Celia and Robin, Alison and Chris and others who become the characters and draw us into the story; and the children, tapping their talent as story-tellers. I felt like pixie dust was in the air on a recent Friday, the story’s charm working its way with us, the fun of playful learning putting us all on a level playing field, and the discovery of what an asset that lower room is to us now. It was easy to feel as if we had found among ourselves a patch of good ground for the planting of little seeds of Yes to God.

I found another burning bush in our upper room, the next morning, when I attended the Saturday breakfast. Phil McKnight gave an eye-opening talk about the Keystone XL Pipeline and the issues that swirl around it. Where I saw light wasn’t just the burning issues, but the bright interest that gathered a good roomful of people and made me realize, “Look at how our faith gathers a fellowship that wants to pay attention to 21st-century dynamics of slavery and freedom. Good ground for the planting of little seeds of Yes.

I can go on… the impact of a stunning choir anthem sending sparks into our liturgy… the commitment of parish leaders to go a second mile beyond maintaining the status quo and on to strategic dreaming about this church’s mission to the world around us… the appetite of Foundations group members and Confirmation candidates and Bible study participants, eager to encounter the God who knows how to attract our fascination and inspire our response.

Response is what’s at issue with the dormant fig tree in our Gospel today. As the burning bush is all about God’s commissioning of Moses to lead his people, so the dormant tree has a purpose: it is expected to bear fruit.

Parables sometimes behave in such a way that we can figure out who is who. Here, does the man who owns the vineyard represent God? Then who is the patient and hopeful gardener? Is he Jesus? Is this tiny little story a glimpse inside a conversation within the Holy and undivided Trinity, the unnamed third party, the Spirit, being the justice/mercy/wisdom that is being debated between the owner and the gardener?

These questions provide the flame that burns in this puzzling parable. Clear and simple is the impression that the vineyard is owned by someone who is running a business, not a charity ward for ailing plants. That latter, by the way, is more the kind of gardener I am, giving everything its fighting chance to keep its place in the garden. Which is why my garden isn’t quite ready for the Garden Club tour.

It’s a well-disciplined landowner we meet here, expecting his agent to execute a careful land management plan. Patches of good soil are hard to come by. Why waste precious resources (water, labor, manure) on a bush that won’t burn with all the chemistry that causes bloom and fruit?

Now that’s a question that’s trying to hit home, in an apostolic church. What justifies pouring resources into a church? What warrants the hope and commitment and patience that people invest in their church? Whose needs are being assessed, and how does a church community care and share and witness beyond its four walls?

Churches are infamous for doing things the way they always have. We mistake the message when we sing “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be,” and think those words prohibit change, rather than expressing the changeless covenant loyalty of God.

Don’t the words of the gardener suggest that for the patch of soil to remain good it must be disturbed from time to time, and fed? And what, in the life of the church, corresponds to manure? Maybe that’s a sermon of its own, some day.

For sure, the parable puts us on notice that by the terms of creation we are all expected to keep not just living but growing, yielding, producing. But remember also that a parable is expected to produce one clear point, one apple, not a bushel; one take-away message. I think we’ve heard it: We are called to keep opening ourselves to growth, the gift we cannot make happen, the gift that happens when we find within and among ourselves that patch of good soil in which the little seed of Yes to God will take root and rise.